From Miniskirt to Hijab

A Girl in Revolutionary Iran

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Jacqueline Saper
  • Lincoln: 
    Potomac/University of Nebraska Press
    , October
     2019.
     240 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781640121171.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jacqueline Saper’s From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran is a welcome addition in the genre of memoir writing by Iranian women in diaspora. The memoir consists of twenty-eight chapters in five parts and an epilogue. It tells the story of Saper, born in Tehran in a Jewish family of interreligious marriage between an Iranian father and a British mother. Saper narrates the events culminating in the 1979 Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) from the perspective of a child in a privileged family. More specifically, the timeline of the book covers the years from 1961 to 1987, when Saper left Iran. Readers get glimpses of the Pahlavi monarchy, the revolution, and later the Islamic Republic regime.

One of the most important contributions of this memoir is the emphasis on revealing the hostilities of a majority Shi’i nation after the Islamic Republic toward its gender, ethnic, and religiously minoritized populations. As a Jewish girl, Saper was forced to abide by Islamic dress codes and regulations. She also recounts the challenges of the nation as a whole during the Iran-Iraq War, when her family had to hide in the basement as Iraqi bombs and missiles were being dropped on Tehrani houses. Faced with the hostilities of the Islamic regime, Saper confesses that she came to accept the multiplicity of her national and cultural identities. This acceptance of hybridity of identify as someone from a minoritized Jewish community within a majority Shi’i country is the most important contribution of this memoir.

A harrowing example of identity formation and clashes in a mainstream society is when Saper discusses her daughter’s and her own names. Names are integral to one’s identity formation; it is the first item that gives a sense of belonging to an individual. Saper writes, “I regretted my decision to give her a foreign name, … I, too, had a foreign name and understood the dilemmas Leora would face” (179). Saper references here another way a majority society, specifically a Shi’i Muslim one under the anti-West Islamic Republic, otherizes minoritized groups based even on their diverse names. From being called the derogatory words johud (a derogatory word used to refer to Jewish individuals) and najes (unclean, impure) to feeling like a second-class citizen, Saper in her narrative reveals the painful experiences of a religiously minoritized woman in Iran.

Saper’s memoir tells the story of a young girl from childhood to adulthood, when she married a surgeon, Ebi, who worked at a war-zone hospital during the Iran-Iraq War. When she gave birth to her two children, her hardships and struggles become exacerbated, as this was during the height of Islamic propaganda in Iran. Jacqueline and Ebi finally decided to leave Iran when they witnessed the indoctrination of their young daughter into radical Islamist politics at school. Saper writes, “Leora began kissing the posters of ayatollahs that were displayed everywhere we went. She had learned to wave her fists in the air and chant ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel’” (181). This is another moment of importance in the memoir—laying bare the ways that extremist ideology seeped into all layers of Iranian society to transform a westernized country into an Islamist one.

Another important aspect of this memoir, of which readers may want to hear even more, is that Saper comes from a financially privileged family. As her father was a highly educated professor at prestigious universities in Iran, and her British mother was a senior administrative staff at British Airways, Saper’s family could afford live-in maids who were from the working class and lower socioeconomic strata. Saper confesses, “My privileged upbringing as the daughter of a university professor and his foreign wife, in the northern Tehran neighborhood of Yousefabad, was comfortable—and unusual” (11). She adds, “The class division between the wealthy and educated living in northern Tehran neighborhoods and the conservatives living in southern Tehran districts was getting deeper and more profound” (19).

In this passage, it is not clear why Saper is contrasting northern Tehran educated people with southern Tehran conservative ones—it seems that she is implying education and progressiveness are on the same spectrum as opposed to conservatives; however, she does not make clear what this has to do with their socioeconomic status. Significantly, after the Islamic Revolution and during the Iran-Iraq War, many of Saper’s family members, including herself in 1987, fled Iran to find security in a safe country. This was not accessible to all Iranians, but the more affluent families could afford to leave Iran. The contrast is stark, and Saper could have further teased out these socioeconomic disparities in the country. Moments of self-reflection in memoirs of this kind are of great significance and import.

While the title of the memoir focuses on the key terms miniskirts and hijab to potentially attract Western audiences, for an Iranian reader, Saper’s intimate details of family matters are of more significance. Thus, the sections that take the reader on a long historical journey might be informative for a non-Iranian reader, while for an Iranian reader they break the flow of the memoir. Iranian readers who are knowledgeable about Iranian history will find those sections both sweeping in terms of their historical value and disruptive of the personal stories.

Overall, however, this memoir by Saper has valuable insights for a wide range of audiences both Iranian and non-Iranian. It could be adopted in literature courses focusing on Middle Eastern writing, women’s writings, and diaspora.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Claudia Yaghoobi is Roshan Associate Professor in Persian Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
March 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jacqueline Saper is a CPA, educator, translator, and public speaker. An expert on Iranian subject matter, her opinion columns and articles regularly appear in national and international publications.